The Emperor’s Tapestry

Last Friday, Patrons project manager  and restoration liaison, Romina Cometti, met with conservators, curators, and Museums directors in the Polymateric Laboratory of the Vatican’s Ethnological Museum to discuss the restoration progress of the Embroidered and Painted Silk Tapestry.  Together, they examined the Chinese imperial artifact, taking a closer look at the rich, colorful silk embroidery and gold leaf detailing that depicts the family clan of Emperor Xianfeng (Qing Dynasty).  Observing the object from this exclusive perspective, gathered around the edges of the tapestry as it lay flat upon a table in the restoration lab, brought attention to the unique details woven into its border.

Among the twisting vines of the bordering floral motif, Cometti noticed a curious detail—the figure of a bat, represented several times throughout the tapestry—and inquired about the animal’s purpose within the design.  Father Nicola Mapelli, head curator of the Ethnological collection, explained that the bat is one of the most popular auspicious symbols in Chinese culture:  the Chinese word for “bat”—“fú”— coincidentally holds the same pronunciation as the Chinese word for “good fortune” or “happiness,”  and the animal has a long tradition of being depicted in Chinese art, carrying the symbolism of good fortune as a visual application of the homophone.

Color also plays a role in this sense: bats are often depicted in red, because it is recognized in Chinese culture as the color of joy and also because the word for red bat, “hong fu,” sounds exactly like the word for “boundless good fortune.”  The photograph below shows a detail of one of the bats woven into the fabric of the Embroidered and Painted Silk Tapestry.  Beyond its red face and distinct ears, the bat’s ornate wings are curved in the shape of a ruyi scepter, another good luck emblem, and are depicted in white, which symbolizes longevity.

It is also interesting to know that “Xianfeng,” the reigning title of the Emperor who commissioned this tapestry, means “Universal Prosperity.”  One can imagine this beautiful tapestry hanging on the wall behind his throne, depicting the imperial family surrounded by these auspicious bats, conveying boundless good fortune, longevity, and universal happiness during his rule. Thanks to the generosity of the Michigan Patrons and the hard work of the Polymateric Lab, we know that the tapestry will be restored to beautiful condition and hung up once again to exhibit its rich fabric of cultural symbolism.   In the meantime, the tapestry’s inscription will be studied, and all damaged areas of its precious silk will be properly repaired. Who knows what further exciting details are yet to be uncovered!


michigan project chinese tapestry detail

Article written by Maddie Amos